Monthly Archives: November 2017

Shanghai-ed by Silhouette

In April of 1997, I was scheduled to be one of 37 magicians from around the world to compete in the Shanghai International Magic Festival and Competition held in Shanghai, China.

​The organizers had originally planned that I arrive the day before the competition which was not satisfactory to me. Between getting over jet-lag, finding my way around, getting used to the food and wanting to rehearse new material, I was going to need more time if I wanted to give a finished performance.  We agreed that I would arrive eight days before the competition was scheduled to take place.

Needless to say, that also gave me plenty of time to relax and do some sightseeing before I had to crack down and get to work.  The first fellow competitor I met was a woman from New Zealand, Tania Nordick.  Except for the organizers, we each didn’t know anyone else in the hotel so we thought it might be fun to do some sightseeing together. 

Tania with the “Artist in Paper”
Shanghai harbor

Upon receiving some advice from the hotel front desk as to the best places for shopping, we went out in search of a taxi.  We found one without much difficulty and gave the driver a card, written in Chinese saying where we wanted to go, and were off.  Coming from New York City, I was used to some hair-raising taxi rides, but Shanghai drivers put them to shame.  Both of us would have felt a bit safer if there were seat belts available, but no such luck.  We soon found out taxis were cheap (like most everything else in Shanghai) and a 45 minute ride for the two of us came out to the equivalent of $4.30!  In New York City, that would get you about an 8 minute ride.

When we got out of the taxi, we soon realized that the ride had been relatively safe compared to trying to cross the street!  Dodging bicycles, cars, pushcarts and pedestrians, was no easy matter even though the streets were quite narrow.  We entered the recommended department store, “The Friendship Store,” and found out that it is one of the biggest tourist centers, very expensive and run by the government.  We agreed to split up and would meet each other out front in an hour.

Browsing through this Chinese department store with all of it’s wonderful and colorful pottery, silk scarves, beautiful fans, etc. made me almost wish I was still doing my oriental act from 10 years ago.  What a perfect place for props!  It reminded me of  how so many famous magicians of the past, Malini, Okito, Fu-Manchu and others, built up their shows with exotic props such as these while stopping through the Orient.  In fact, my teacher, Bobby Baxter recalls how when he was in Hong Kong during the 1960’s, he passed a tailor’s shop who still had a picture of Malini in his window.

Well, I ended up buying a little musical instrument that I needed for my act and later met Tania as planned.  (That evening while in the hotel elevator, I listened to another American tourist lamenting to his friend how he had bought an expensive statue at “The Friendship Store” last year on his first visit, and later found the same piece back in America at K-Mart for a fraction of the price.)

Meanwhile, back in downtown Shanghai, we headed over to the river and promenade where one can watch the many small boats and ships as they pass by. As we approached the promenade, peddlers immediately began beseeching us to buy this or that, such as postcards and cheap flutes.  This is where being a NewYorker helped and we quickly brushed by them.  While leaning over the rail of the promenade and wondering to each other what the various buildings and towers were, a Chinese man came over with a big smile and asked us in fairly good English, “How-are-you-doing?”  We smiled and replied that we were fine and asked him, “How are you doing?”  He laughed and replied that he was, “How-are-you-doing!”  We chuckled at that and he engaged us in conversation and found out that he referred to himself as an “Artist in Paper.”  He told us about the various sights and explained that the large, futuristic tower across the river was the TV station and that this was representative of the “New Modern Shanghai.”

He was quite helpful and volunteered much “tourist” type of information as to where to go for cheap shopping, the location of the nearest ATM, etc.  Having my camera along, I figured this would be worth a picture or two, so I snapped one of Tania and our friend.  A few more pictures in various combinations of us and him were taken and the conversation drifted down a bit.

I was talking to Tania when out the corner of my eye, I noticed our friend had stepped back from us and was taking some paper and scissors out of his pocket.  Having been a fan of Dai Vernon (The Professor) since my childhood, I immediately realized that he was cutting my silhouette.  In his younger days, Vernon had made quite a good living doing the same on the boardwalk of Atlantic City.  The first thing I thought was, “Oh, how nice,” and then realized that our “friend” was going to be expecting some monetary compensation for his trouble even though he had started without asking us.

He cut both of our portraits and by the time he was finishing Tania’s, we had a nice little crowd around us.  I took out my wallet and in my best New York accent inquired, “OK, how much?”  When he saw a US $20.00 bill he immediately said he “would accept 20 dollars.”  I calmly explained to him that that was not going to happen and as we bargained over the price,  the crowd began closing in on us.  Being new with Yuan (Chinese money) and not wishing the ever curious crowd to see how much I had, I hurriedly gave him the equivalent of $12.00 for both the silhouettes and quickly left.  After a moment alone and figuring out how much I had given him, my sunny mood diminished somewhat.

Tania felt stronger about it than I did.  She gave me her half of the money and was a bit put out by it all.  I chalked it up to experience and that a trip to Shanghai was not complete without being “Shanghai-ed.”  So hey, for my 6 bucks I got my silhouette cut, received some shopping advice and found out where the ATM was; not the worst that could happen (I told myself).

Later, when I looked at the silhouette, I noticed that he had sported me with a crew cut and necktie, both of which I did not have, which I thought was funny.  As I laughed and put it away, I couldn’t help but think that The Professor was looking down on us, having been “Shanghai-ed,” and having a bit of a chuckle himself.


Karl Germain, Obscure Secrets and Gas Tanks

Reproduced from Genii, The Conjuror’s Magazine, used with Permission

Karl Germain (February 12, 1878 – August 9, 1959)

It was 1988 and I had just finished interviewing magician, Stuart Cramer, author of the Karl Germain books. We had spent a delightful long weekend talking about Germain and magic in general.  On the morning that I was to leave, we planned to visit Germain’s grave outside of Cleveland.  We first stopped to make some Xerox copies of Stuart’s notebooks.  Stuart had parked in back of another car and I happened to look down at its dealership tag. It read, “Germain” which spooked us both a little bit.  Having later pai​d our respects to Germain at Riverside Cemetery (which is another story) I then had plans to meet up with Johnny Ace Palmer.  To save Stuart driving time, Johnny agreed to meet us on an entrance ramp of the interstate. Right on schedule, Johnny showed up, the three of us chatted briefly and said good-bye to Stuart.​

Torkova with Stuart Cramer
Ohio, 1988








Karl Germain props
Klosterman collection, 1988


​Johnny was driving me to Indiana to perform at a couple of clubs, one of them being “Illusions.” Knowing my interest in the history of magic, Johnny contacted Ken Klosterman who was in town on business and invited him to see the show.  Ken, whom I had never met, didn’t get to the show until after it was over.  We chatted about magic history and hit it off right away.  However, it was getting late and we decided to continue our conversation the next day.

Ken stayed overnight in a nearby motel and the next morning with Johnny driving, we hooked up for breakfast.  Seeing a McDonalds up ahead, Ken suggested we eat there.  We pulled into the drive-through and while waiting in line I couldn’t help but ask Ken a question.  Having heard that he was a successful entrepreneur I asked, “Ken, you eat at McDonalds?”  He said, “Of course, I make the rolls for them!”  Ken was the owner of Klosterman Bakeries with manufacturing plants in several states.  Just as we were pulling out of the drive-through the person working thewindow yelled for us to stop.  We did and were told our car had a gas leak.

We got out to look and sure enough, there was a thin stream of gas shooting out the back of the car.  We plugged it up with some cloth and headed for the nearest garage to get it fixed.  The fellow there put it up on the rack while we stood around and waited.  Ken walked over to a phone at the edge of the parking lot and made a call.  At some point, while he was on the phone Ken yelled over to Johnny, “What kind of car is that?”  Johnny told him.  Ken repeated the information back to the person on the other end of the phone.  “And what year is it?”  Again Johnny yelled back the year with Ken relaying the information to the other person.

Ken got off the phone and walked back over to us as we were talking to the mechanic.  The mechanic said that he could only temporarily plug up the hole in the gas tank with a screw but didn’t have the means to repair it correctly.  Johnny agreed to this and while the hole was being plugged, Ken mentioned that one of bakery plants was only about 10 miles from where we were.  If we drove over there his mechanic would work on Johnny’s car.

As we were driving to the plant, Ken and I got to talk some more about Germain and magic history.  We got so engrossed in our conversation that Ken forgot to tell us where the turn off on the road was.  We soon realized we were lost.  After driving around for a while, we finally figured out where we were and made it to Ken’s plant about thirty minutes later than anticipated.

As we pulled into the plant, there was a lone figure in overalls standing in the middle of the parking lot.  He was holding a welding torch in one hand and the accompanying tank in the other.  He had been patiently waiting for us.  As Ken’s mechanic put the car up on the rack, I realized that in a about an hour, a gas tank that fit Johnny’s car had been located and was now being installed! Johnny and I just looked at each other in amazement.  I had a realization.

​I was reminded of the story of Carlos Castaneda having an epiphany in the desert watching a beetle rolling a piece of dung.  He realized at that moment that while they both lived in the same world, the world was not the same for both of them.  So it was with Ken and me.  We lived in the same world, but it was not the same for both of us.

While the gas tank was being replaced, Ken offered to take us on a tour of his plant.  For the next hour we happily watched McDonald’s rolls being made.  When the car was repaired, Johnny drove us to Ken’s ranch to see his legendary collection of historic magic.  That day Ken was having a lake put in on his property.  Johnny stayed for a while eventually had to leave.  Later that evening, Ken took me down to see his collection.

One of the first things I noticed upon entering was a poster of Germain hanging on the wall.  Ken told me that it was actually mounted on a door behind which were shelves containing Germain’s smaller props.  I opened up the panel and looked at all the marvelous props of that by-gone era; nesting loaves of bread made from paper mache, bundles of throw out ribbons complete with a mechanical device for rewinding them during long train rides between shows, a break-a-way production bottle, etc.


Torkova holding Germain’s Card Sword
Klosterman collection, 1988







Now understand that just before my visit, I had re-read both the Germain books and then spent four days with the author, Stuart Cramer interviewing him.  So naturally, much of the information was still fresh in my mind, not to mention the many details and anecdotes that Stuart told me which were not included in the books.  Among the props I was looking at were curious little gimmicks along with some small blank cards.  Ken and his curator Steve Faris, who was also there, had not been able to identify what these props were or how they might have been used.  I studied them for a moment and realized that they belonged to a mentalism trick described in one of the Germain books.  It was a unique prop that used a piece of thread with a hook on it that was attached between Germain and his sister Ida, who was seated and blindfolded.  They used to tug on the thread to signal each other during one of their mind reading routines.  I explained how the props were used which delighted Ken for it had puzzled him for quite some time.

Ken then gave me a general tour of his collection pointing out such rarities including Kellar’s center table and it was thrilling to see it in person.  Ken had acquired it from the John Ringling collection and still bore Ringling’s brass nameplate.  At one end of the main room, Ken had a small stage set up as an exhibition space.   He would rotate the exhibition a few times a year to showcase various magicians’ props.   As luck would have it, he currently had Germain’s larger props on display.  This was especially appropriate since Ken had his stage fitted with Germain’s theatrical curtains.  These are same curtains that Houdini had once wanted to purchase.  I examined with interest the hollow flowerpot for the Flower Growth, his Spirit Clock Dial and his Germain Jars.

Germain jars
Klosterman collection, 1988








Germain props
Klosterman collection, 1988
(left to right)
Germain jars, Cramer’s book, side tables, clay pot for  flower growth,Top hat on pedestal (used to hide an umbrella), Miss confetti & Dove, Butterfly, Crystal clock dial, Green silk stage curtains


I was most intrigued by the jars.  Knowing what great taste Germain had, I was a bit surprised to see marks all over them giving them a sort of a leopard look.  This was possibly done after Germain had sold them.  Ken had never set up the jars as the book described and I was anxious to give it a try to see how it felt to perform them.  We got the Germain book out and set up the jars.  I went through the motions that Stuart had described in the book.  They had a great feel to them and I could see what a wonderful mystery this must have been.  As the tour continued, we walked through a secret door into an adjoining room decorated in Egyptian motif.  In one corner was one of Okito’s magnificent tables that immediately piqued my curiosity. Next to it was an umbrella stand with about a dozen card swords sticking out of it.  I reached in and took one out at random to examine it.

​​I turned to Ken to ask him about its unusual design.  He had a weird look on his face.  He said, “You know, that was Germain’s card sword!”  Again I got spooked.  Like before, Ken and Steve couldn’t figure out why it was designed the way it was.  Instead of having just a hollow shaft for the elastic, Germain’s card sword had a v-shaped, hollow trough.  They had speculated that perhaps this would better hide the elastic, but weren’t sure.

I examined it more closely.  Again, luck was on my side.  Stuart had not mentioned Germain’s card sword in the books, but coincidentally had told me about it the day before.  So in my most nonchalant manner I causally stated, “Oh, yes, Germain’s card sword; his father had made that for him.  The v-shaped trough enabled Germain to ribbon spread the cards out along the sword, then flip them all up into the air and stab the selected card!”  Ken and Steve just turned and looked at each other dumbstruck as if to say, “Who the heck is this guy?”


Rare props
Klosterman collection, 1988

Abbott talking kettle owned by Kellar,
Alexander Herrmann’s die box,
Robert-Houdin’s light/ heavy chest
& his crystal coin casket


Ken continued showing me his choicest pieces including the obscure Germain Monkey’s Paw, Robert-Houdin’s Light & Heavy Chest and Hofzinser’s Rose Mirror.  It was quite a humbling experience seeing and handling all these treasures from the past that I had previously only read about.  We continued to hit it off and Ken graciously invited me to stay for a few days as his guest. Unfortunately I had other commitments in New York which I had to get back to and so was unable to accept.  I went home not only richer in the knowledge I had gained, but also in the friendships I had made.

As I write this and reflect on that weekend fourteen years ago, I fondly recall what Stuart Cramer, Ken Klosterman and Johnny Ace Palmer shared with me. All had shared their friendship, graciousness and generosity that made my visit truly memorable and unique.  What better way to explore a person’s life than to hear their story from their biographer?   Then the next day be shown the physical realization of their ideas by the person who is their current custodian.

I think it would be “germane” (Karl Germain was very fond of puns) to end with a quote of something that, on the reprinting of his books, seems most appropriate.  As Karl Germain once wrote to a friend who had recalled his past glories, “…I thank you for the evidence of the survival of my personality, in and through you!  You may rest assured that you and your genial magical personality will live long after we have turned to dust-yes, after our very names have been forgotten.”

Hopefully, that won’t be for a long time to come.

Copyright 2002, 2017 by Robert Torkova